May 16, 2017

The “Fallen” Project was the KXAN investigative team’s reaction to a single shooter killing five police officers in Dallas in the summer of 2016 and a wave of law enforcement officers gunned down across Texas and the country.

It started with two questions: what do their killers have in common, and could the answer to that question help prevent more deaths? Our research began by identifying the number of Texas peace officers shot and killed in the line of duty since 2000. In the ten months it took to investigate the issue, that number rose to 79. Next, we dug into each of those cases to find themes in the killers’ backgrounds.

In the end, the connection between the most killers turned out to be mental illness. In about a third of the cases, the person pulling the trigger was either diagnosed with or showed signs of mental illness at some point before committing their crime.

While sifting through thousands of documents and profiling each fallen officer, we identified the most compelling cases related to mental illness, then sought out court records, dash and body camera video and crime scene photos. We also visited the locations of the crimes to better understand each case. As some of the killings were fairly recent and still raw for many of those close to the victims and the shooters, we worked for several weeks to secure interviews with family members and colleagues, in addition to legal and mental health experts who could best explain each case.

These killings also revealed some shortfalls in police protection. We learned the State of Texas offers optional training for police to become certified Mental Health Officers. The 40-hour course can help them better respond to calls involving a mental health crisis, along with advanced de-escalation and diversion techniques. But an analysis of state law enforcement data showed just seven percent of the 77,000 peace officers in Texas are certified Mental Health Officers, and only a quarter of the peace officers shot and killed by someone with mental illness since 2000 had that training. During our investigation, Texas lawmakers passed legislation to require this course of all future law enforcement cadets.

Our investigation also revealed Texas has no statewide system for police agencies to share mental health information. Some of the cases we profiled showed police agencies not communicating such symptoms or risks to other departments. As a result, some of the officers who were killed were unaware their shooters had a history of mental illness – even though police in other agencies might have known. State lawmakers told us they not only wanted to look into the issue ahead of the next legislative session but also find a way to balance police protection and a person’s privacy.

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Submitted by Josh Hinkle.

Headliners Foundation